Art Works Blog

Incendiary

“Well,” my five-year-old explained to the stranger in the waiting room, as she drew a line of smiling faces on her stack of stapled-together construction paper, “these are the people who die in my book.” 

“Ah!” said the stranger. She was somebody else’s mother, waiting to be called in by the nurse. Then she added, politely, “What did they die of?”

 “A fire,” my daughter said, giving one of the faces pig tails.

This spooked me, not because the child was being uncanny--she’s usually not so bloodthirsty, though, like any five-year-old, she can pull something eerie out of the collective unconscious--but because it sounded familiar. Were plot points hereditary? In nearly every piece of fiction I’ve ever written, there’s been a fire. None of these conflagrations have ever made it to publication: they exist only in computer files marked old draft or scrap or dead file or fire. Mostly house fires, though I’ve written a fire in a circus tent and another in an elementary school. 

Kill your darlings, says Arthur Quiller-Couch and then every writing instructor ever. My children once overheard me say this and were alarmed. (“Not you darlings,” I said. “Just sentences.” That a sentence could be beloved further unnerved them.) I’ve always hated this advice. I cling to my darlings. In graduate school, I had an image I loved that my classmates suggested was overly picturesque. So I put it in every single story I wrote until people--new people, fresh people, brilliant people--checkmarked it in the manuscript. (Here’s the version that made it: “…on overcast days the birds have to navigate by looking down instead of up, steering by streetlights instead of stars.” I suppose it’s not ornithologically sound but I’m still fond of it.)

Listen: I am not precious. Indeed, I have come to understand that I’m a tremendously inefficient writer: I write pages and pages and (dammit) books and books that I have to throw away. I make up characters who have to be cut, locales, plotlines. Chapters. Entire sections. I have to date written two entire novels that have gone into that good night (one gentle, one not so gentle) and I worry about a third. Forgive me for clinging to the odd sentence.

What allows me to walk away is, in some way, sentiment. Ah, I say, as I close a computer file, perhaps for the last time, that extended meditation on the relationship between Little Dot and Little Lotta is really something, I can use that somewhere. NB: I really have written an extended meditation on the relationship between Little Dot and Little Lotta. I put it into both of my now-shuttered novels. I still love it. Those lost books are shipwrecks and I have to believe I can salvage something, though so far Little Dot and Little Lotta are still at the bottom of the sea.

So: fires are darling to me. I don’t know why, apart from a childhood fascination with books about historical fires--the Coconut Grove in Boston, the Hartford Circus fire of 1944. I loved reading something that took the chaos of a fire and organized it, followed the doomed and the brave through the flames. (Also: shipwrecks, fires, floods: I’ve had a lifelong fascination with disaster.) I’ve written so many sentences on the subject--what melts, what flares, what blackens; what can be pulled out of the wreckage, what cannot; the path of the fire up bannisters, across thresholds; the heat of fire on the opposite side of the door. 

Also, I have a fear of nothing happening in my fiction. Left to their own devices my characters, like their author, eat too much cake and talk about childhood slights. A fire is an event. This, I think as a type, is really something.

And then the character who’s killed in the fire has to go, or the location of the fire, or the chapter. Most often the fire turns out to be, you should pardon the expression, a smokescreen for a quieter, more necessary catastrophe.

Next time, I think. And so next time I try again with my literary pyromania: ah, chapter six. That looks like an excellent place for a fire. 

I’m stubborn because of that sentence that I found a place for, all those years ago. I’m stubborn because, after years of writing about people living with the dead body of a family member (another fictional obsession), I finally wrote and published a short story with a corpse at the heart. I’m stubborn because I enjoy writing those passages: the word incendiary, the refrigerator-like latches on the coats of the firefighters, the way flames might be said to deliberate over a pair of lace curtains. I like the flames and I like the smudgy aftermath, both.

So when my daughter said, “These are the people who die in my book,” I counted up the faces she had drawn, with their toothy smiles and their scribbled hair. Seven. I thought, Yes: I want to read that book.

Here, I thought, I’ve finally learned my lesson. I won’t blame the fire. I’ve just allowed for too many survivors.

One learns the most important things from little children.

Listen to our podcast with NEA Literature Fellow Elizabeth McCracken to learn more about her and her work.

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